The Miracle of the Resurrection
Before we can even examine the evidence to determine whether the resurrection is a historical event, we must first deal with the problem of whether such an event is possible in the first place. We need to confront the problem of miracles.
More skeptics reject the resurrection because of its miraculous nature than for any other reason. If the resurrection is historical, then something truly extraordinary has occurred: the raising of Jesus from the dead. But many people find it difficult to believe that an event of this type has occurred. Even the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, was so offended by the gospel miracles that he literally used scissors to cut out all of the "miraculous" passages in his Bible, and published the emasculated remains as The Jefferson Bible. The French skeptic Ernest Renan, in his Life of Jesus, also questioned the gospel miracles.
Likewise, some theologians have been so embarrassed by the miraculous nature of the gospels that many of them, following the lead of Rudolf Bultmann, have striven to demythologize the New Testament. According to Bultmann, "no one who uses the radio or electric lights should be expected to believe in the mythological world view of the Bible in order to become a Christian" (paraphrased in Craig 1994, 128).
Now I definitely think that the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection can be challenged by disputing the alleged historical evidence for it. I consider such evidence in the next two chapters. Here, however, I would like to note that the background probability of a claim is just as important to determining the reliability of testimony when it comes to ascertaining the credibility of a claim. This is especially true of the resurrection, since our only alleged evidence for the event is testimony. Let me give an example to illustrate why the background probability of a claim must be considered.
Suppose someone that was presumably reliable and trustworthy claimed they had just flown over a lake by flapping their arms. Surely no rational person would take such a claim seriously (at least initially; although we might change our minds if this event could be repeated). We would reject such a claim because it goes against everything which we know about the powers of the human mind, modern physics, etc. Apart from the testimony of such an event, we would rate the prior probability of such a claim so infinitesimally low that it would invalidate the testimony and make the claim unbelievable.
Background Probability and Atheists
For an atheist, the background probability of the resurrection is as low as the background probability of human flight via arm-flapping. From the atheist point of view, what applies to miraculous claims of teleportation equally applies to the claim that a dead person – especially one that has been dead for three days and nights – can come back to life. Everything we know about what happens to the body at death (rigormortis, organic decomposition, etc.) plus the universal experience of humans throughout history (with the possible exception of the alleged eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection) indicates that the stinking dead stay dead (Parsons, 191). Thus the background probability of a resurrection is extremely low.
Moreover, if an event is a miracle, then it must have taken place contrary to a law of nature. For those who deny the existence of God to say that an event "violates the laws of nature" means that it must have a background probability that is very, very low. Therefore, for an atheist to be justified in believing a miracle on the basis of testimony, the possibility that the testimony is false would have to be a greater miracle than if the alleged event actually occurred (Hume, 32).
Thus, virtually every naturalistic scenario, no matter how far-fetched, must seem a priori more plausible to the atheist, than something as miraculous as the resurrection. Therefore Christian apologists’ arguments against rationalistic explanations like the swoon theory, the theft theory, etc. miss the point. As long as such explanations do not require a violation of the laws of nature, for the atheist they are automatically more probable than a miracle like the resurrection.
This has enormous implications for the debate between Christians and skeptics over the resurrection in twentieth-century America. The resurrection cannot be debated in a vacuum. If Christian apologists hope to convince skeptics of the resurrection, they will need to figure out a way to get skeptics to take it seriously. I remember the first time I heard a Christian apologist offer the resurrection as "proof" for the existence of God. I rejected his argument, not because of historical doubts or because of its miraculous nature per se, but because I didn’t even take it seriously. I think that if Christian apologists discussed the resurrection with respect to its prior probability and theism (as I do below), skeptics would have much more respect for it.
Background Probability and Theists
But what if God does exist? What is the background probability of a miraculous event, like the resurrection, if God exists? I think that the theist can plausibly argue that the background probability is much improved, if not high, under such conditions. Given that God exists, there are good reasons to believe He will intervene.
First, if there is a God who is creator of the universe and the laws that govern it, then it seems reasonable to believe that He would be able to temporarily suspend the laws of nature. If God could create the universe ex nihilo, then surely a mere resurrection or levitation would pale in comparison. Indeed, in terms of its relative difficulty, one would think that the raising of Jesus from the dead would pale in comparison.
Second, as philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne argues (p. 551), there is good reason to believe that if God exists, He would reveal Himself through a divine miracle at some point in human history. People are capable of knowing that God exists, but obviously not all men come to believe in God. It seems plausible that, given some people’s failure to recognize the existence of God (assuming He exists), He might intervene in human history, and reveal His true purpose. Indeed, Swinburne goes on to argue (p. 544-52) that miracles might be especially useful for the purpose of authenticating a divine messenger or prophet.
For these two reasons alone, then, I think theists can plausibly argue that if God exists, the prior probability of the resurrection is high. Critics of the resurrection (or any other miracle, for that matter) would do well to consider this point, for it implies that Humean attacks on miracles miss the point. If one believes in God, one believes that certain types of miracles have a significant prior probability, i.e. they are what one would reasonably expect. Therefore, if a theist is going to reject the resurrection, they will need historical grounds for doing so.
With respect to the contemporary debate between Christians and skeptics over the resurrection, then, this implies that skeptics should not focus their arguments against the miraculous nature of the resurrection. By ignoring the background probability of miracles in general, and the resurrection in particular, their arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears.